Grapetooth was not born out of necessity.
Talking with Clay Frankel and Chris Bailoni, the wizards behind the Chicago synth-pop upstarts, you get the feeling that the band’s success came as a surprise—that this whole thing sort of happened by accident.
“It was something to play for our friends while we were in the car,” Clay said when asked about the band’s popularity. “We didn’t it expect it to be anything.”
But in the little more than a year since the band’s first single, “Trouble,” dropped, Grapetooth has become, well, something, both in Chicago and beyond. Their live show, a doom-dance conquest they’ve dubbed “hyper-disco,” is already a platonic ideal amongst Chicago’s concert-going youth, and the band’s forthcoming self-titled debut, out Friday on Polyvinyl, is one of the most hotly anticipated releases coming out of the city this year.
Their success shouldn’t come as too big of a surprise. Frankel has already achieved fame as guitarist and vocalist of Chicago garage icons Twin Peaks, while Bailoni went to school for audio engineering, and has been producing electronic music under the moniker Home-Sick for years. There’s no doubting their musical chops. But it’s the band’s sound—a uniquely lived-in take on the New Wave and dance music of the 1980’s—that’s a surprise hit, especially amongst the city’s decidedly guitar-focused indie-rock scene.
Listen to Twin Peaks’ Daytrotter session:
It’s clear in talking with them, though, that Grapetooth was not born out some desire to break molds or to challenge themselves artistically. Their music is largely a product of circumstance: Frankel and Bailoni started hanging out in 2015, and by the end of that year, the bedrock of what would become Grapetooth was set in place.
“I was getting turned on to a lot of New Wave music by Chris, and as we hung out, we’d discover more music together,” Frankel said. The two would hang out in Chris’ expansive bedroom-studio set-up, spinning records and tinkering with sounds while polishing off jugs of red wine. ”As we discovered new music together, it kind of influenced the way we were making our own.”
One of the first songs to make an impression on the duo was “Magic Love” by the Japanese funk band Fishman’s. Frankel called it a litmus test of sorts: whenever something new would come out of a late-night bedroom jam session, they would compare it to “Magic Love,” to see if it held up. Other touchstones include Arthur Russell, Yukihiro Takahashi and, of course, New Order.
It’s not just New Wave that informs the music they make together, though. There’s a strain of folksiness coursing underneath all the synth-and-stomp bombast. Details like the slide guitar on “Mile After Mile” or the lonesome harmonica on “Hallelujah,” as well as the entirety of the album closer “Together,” speak to a deep love of the country-western canon of American music. “Everybody says ‘New Order, New Order, New Order,’ but when I tell them that it’s country music too, they kind of laugh,” Frankel said.
He says he drew as much from singer/songwriters like Neil Young and Townes Van Zandt, who he called “story-tellers,” as he did from the ’80s records he and Bailoni were discovering together. “There was never an over-arching scheme to the songs,” he said. “It was a nightly thing. We’d listen to a whole bunch of different records, sometimes country, and we’d say, ‘Let’s make a song in that vibe,’ and everything we were listening to would just come together.”
That was how their first single, “Trouble,” came together, in a night of extended jams and musical omnivorous-ness. “We wrote that song lightning-fast,” Bailoni said. “The first thing was that lead keyboard line. And Clay was just yelling random stuff. He eventually came to ‘trouble,’ and it stuck.”
This is the way the two operate—the melody is just as important as the small-grain textures and feelings that make a song unique. When describing how he approaches Grapetooth songs, Frankel resorts to a film metaphor. “I think of a melody first. A strong melody is important. But I’ve started to think of songs like a director—pick a genre, and tell a story within that genre. All music has some underlying similarities, it’s just how you do things. It’s like the setting in a movie, or the costume design. A lot of these songs are pretty much simple four-chord songs, it’s just how you layer them.”
If Frankel is the director, then Bailoni is the effects artist, the guy who goes in and makes it all feel real. “I come at it from a place of searching for an emotion out of a sound. Melody is important, obviously, but there’s a consistent feeling that, when I start a new song, I need to find the sound that matches it. It doesn’t matter so much what chord or what notes or melody—if you find that one sound, you get a feeling immediately. That’s what inspires me.”
The two knew they were onto something with “Trouble,” and so did their friends. The only reason they recorded the song, along with its accompanying music video, was because their friend Kevin Rhomberg, better known as producer Knox Fortune, asked them to open for his record release party at Lincoln Hall in November of last year. When Rhomberg asked them to open, the pair didn’t even have a name, let alone any intention of playing shows or releasing music. They came to the name Grapetooth through their mutual love of wine—Twin Peaks’ tour manager Peyton Copes had bestowed the moniker upon Frankel for the way wine stained his smile scarlet.
“It’s just an interesting image,” Frankel said. “It’s kind of similar to that first band me and Chris bonded over, Fishman’s, just a strange word that you kind of know the meaning of, but not really. And there’s the wine connotation. I always liked the lofty romanticism of it, the stereotype of the guy drinking red wine. It fits with the music we were making—overly romantic, boozy stuff.”
“Trouble,” then, was the perfect encapsulation of the type of songs the band would go on to produce. It was boozy, it was romantic and it was unlike anything else coming out of the city at that point. When the video dropped in October of last year, it felt like an instant anthem, a jacked-up disco-jaunt that was both earnest and effortless.
It’s that ramshackle effortlessness that’s most appealing about Grapetooth. Their “fuck around with friends” attitude informs both their music, and everything that surrounds it. Just take a look at their raucous live show: the “hyper-discos” almost always close out with the band inviting the crowd onstage to dance with them. Their last song usually ends up being drowned out by a mass of people filling every available inch, to the point where security has to cut the sound and shut it all down. The barrier between performer and fan is torn down; everyone is there together in the light and the music. Strangers become friends for a moment. But don’t be fooled. This didn’t come out of a desire to make some sort of statement on the divide between artist and audience or anything like that. “That came from having no idea what we’re doing,” Clay said. “By the end of the show, it’s like ‘I gotta get out here,’ so I just disappear into the crowd.”
Their music videos are a product of the same shrug-and-see energy. The videos for “Violent,” “Trouble,” and “Red Wine” feature the two gallivanting around Chicago in an aesthetic that’s equal parts Max Headroom and Prestige Worldwide. Bailoni said the skate videos he used to make with his friends, many of which can still be found on his Home-Sick YouTube channel, were a source of inspiration when he and Frankel started filming for Grapetooth. He says filmography was his first creative passion, and that watching skate videos as a kid led to his interest in music: “I just like the idea—take the night, take a camera. No planning, just go out with your friends, have a couple of drinks and do some goofy shit. See what you’ve got at the end of the night.” Change up a few words, and that’s basically the recipe for a Grapetooth song.
Frankel and Bailoni do this a lot: They frame their musicianship in the vocabulary of other fields, other interests. There’s the film metaphors, the comparisons to set design and special effects, the free-wheeling ride-along nature of skate videos and how they influenced the band’s own approach. It spread beyond film, though. When talking about their live show, Bailoni recalls how his years spent working at haunted houses ended up helping him with stage presence. The first time he saw a video of himself onstage, he said it shocked him. “I never knew how I looked onstage, truly, but watching that video put into perspective. I’m moving fast, flailing my arms. I think the haunted-house stuff influenced how wild I am onstage. Over the years you get good at startling people, getting their heart rates up.”
That’s all they really want to do, at the end of it all: play music that gets you excited. It’s how Grapetooth started, with the two of them getting excited about the things they were listening to. Signing to a label, playing shows, releasing records—those are all surprises. And, true to form, the two have no real plan going forward, aside from getting back to that bedroom studio to see what happens. “We’re just excited to get that record in the mail. All that work in its final form,” Bailoni said.
“I’m looking forward to finding some time to start making some new music,” Frankel added. “Start exploring new horizons, while remembering the coasts from where we departed.”
It’s the most fitting way a conversation with them could end: funny, fanciful, and completely off-the-cuff.
Paste took Grapetooth’s Clay Frankel and the rest of his other band, Twin Peaks, record-shopping in 2016: